“I’m probably going to roll my ankle today,” laughs a man wearing sweatpants and a track jacket. He is obviously enthused about the prospect, and so is everyone around him.
The crowd is mixed — teenagers who look like they’ll be back in their high school classes the next day stretch alongside men with stubble and women in North Face jackets. Beginners warm up next to seasoned veterans. Everyone is jubilant, and they show their enthusiasm by leaping from parking bulkhead to parking bulkhead.
After a few minutes of creatively using small concrete barriers to stretch and get ready, the crowd — hailing from Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento and of course Santa Cruz — looks around for a leader to show them what to do next. Calls of “Where’s Nico?” begin to replace the staccato rapport of sneakers on pavement.
Nico Moe, a recent UC Santa Cruz graduate, doesn’t disappoint, bounding down the Oakes steps only seconds after his name is called. Laughing and wearing a lemon-yellow T-shirt that reads “parkour connections,” Nico shepherds the crowd through Oakes and up the string of stairs that lead to the College Eight plaza.
Although most students complain their way up these steps, these people are different — they run up the concrete stairs on their hands and knees or vault over the handrails just for the challenge. These people are parkour artists, or traceurs, and they see the structure of the UCSC campus differently.
Parkour, simply put, is the physical discipline of moving from one point to another with the most efficient movements possible. The challenge is that things tend to be in the way. Though it’s difficult to pin down when parkour started, most agree that it was popularized immensely in the ‘80s and ‘90s by David Belle in France. The institutionalization of parkour is on the rise, with gyms popping up around the state and organized groups gaining prominence. Some practitioners think that swapping out concrete walls and rusty handrails for trampolines and gym mats can only help the sport, while others swear by the sport’s urban roots.
These meet-ups, known as parkour “jams,” take place once a month at varying locales and draw parkour clubs from around the Bay Area and Central Coast. Events like these are representative of the explosive growth of organized parkour, and parkour websites like Worldwide Jam and Planet Parkour act as congregating points for a sport that is truly global in its appeal. Parkour Planet, for example, uses Google Maps to help isolated parkour artists find one another and practice together.
Michelle Huffman, a representative for the Santa Cruz Sports Central Gymnastics Learning Center, thinks parkour is on its way to becoming a more recognized sport and acknowledges the usefulness of parkour gyms in that process.
“They [parkour artists] must develop a system of rules and skills that can be used internationally — their own language, if you will, just like any sport,” she said. “It has been a while since we have been able to watch a fledgling sport emerge, like the amazing rise of snowboarding. I’m really enjoying watching the process.”
As far as the Santa Cruz “jam” goes, the rules are fairly loose: More experienced parkour artists attempt difficult moves, and others take the initiative to try to copy them. It’s a little bit like the basketball game Horse, but with no penalties.
Though gyms may be useful for beginner parkour artists, perhaps part of the appeal of parkour lies in its “everyman” aesthetic — there’s no special gear required, and you don’t have to be a member of any special club to participate. Few things are easier on the wallet than a concrete wall and some enthusiasm.
“There’s no specific clothing. It’s all up to you,” said fourth-year Reno Nims, one of the founding members of the Santa Cruz Parkour Team.
Nims, who started the team about two years ago with UCSC graduate Moe, said there’s something about parkour that appeals to a wide variety of people.
“A lot of the time, it’s people who have this childish ambition to just play,” Nims said. “People are walking to classes, going to work. They don’t see the world around them as this place to play — they’ve grown up. The world around me is a playground. Santa Cruz is really good for that. There are a lot of people who are children at heart, and it’s really good for them [to do parkour].”
Though onlookers might be confused as they watch parkour artists haphazardly navigate urban landscapes, practitioners say there is a great deal of skill and training involved.
“Parkour is very much like a martial art — it’s about 30 percent physical and 70 percent mental. Parkour isn’t just about being able to do cool moves and jump over stuff. It’s about the mindset you have when doing it, about keeping the flow and moving efficiently with as little wasted energy as possible,” said Jacob Pernell, fourth-year student and Santa Cruz Parkour Team member.
Pernell said parkour is as much a state of mind as a sport.
“It’s about encountering challenges, obstacles and fears, and then being strong in yourself so that you can work through and conquer these things,” he said. “There’s definitely a huge philosophy behind the art of parkour, and this philosophy can be applied to every other aspect of life.”
Parkour is not a simple sport — there are multiple sub-categories within the sport, with parkour and “free-running” often being mistaken for the same thing. The nebulous history of how exactly parkour originated doesn’t help, either. However, some practitioners say the distinction between the two is unnecessary.
“There’s the internet definition that parkour is efficiency, and free-running is ‘tricking’ (showing off elaborate acrobatic moves), but I like the definition that the founders have gone out with recently — that there is no difference,” Nims said. “In each of them, the goal is to have complete mastery over your body’s motion. We’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re all after the same goal.”
Though a YouTube search for parkour tends to bring up images of European teenagers navigating the burned-out husks of Soviet bloc apartments with wild abandon, the sport is definitely evolving to fit more regimented practices. The UCSC campus is perfectly suited for cooperative creative movement and the members of the Santa Cruz Parkour Team know it.
Artem Chelovechkov, a member of the Santa Cruz Parkour Team, said there are definite benefits to training with others.
“The main reason to train with others is the creativity that comes out of it and you can help motivate each other,” he said. “Parkour is about self-improvement and growth, and working with others makes it an efficient and fun kind of self-discovery. Working in a group can help you measure your own improvement and learn from others, see the grey walls, rails, trees and stairs in a new way.”
Though there may be more structure to the group today, with organized groups coming from miles away to participate in monthly “jams,” Nims’ experience with parkour was less regimented.
“Most of my friends had done [parkour] for a while — they also loved this [wpNSC][video][/wpNSC] game, Mirror’s Edge,” Nims said. “I got sick one day and decided to play it. I got this sense of freedom from it, and I thought, ‘My friends do this. I want to do this in real life.’”
The representation of parkour-like activities in popular media is on the rise. In Electronic Arts’ Mirror’s Edge (released in late 2008), players control a character who is forced to navigate a dystopian urban landscape using only her acrobatic skills while evading police state forces. Reality shows like G4’s American Ninja Warrior, which is currently filming in Los Angeles, also bring this once-obscure sport to the forefront in popular youth culture.
This increased visibility may also have something to do with the growth of gyms that offer parkour classes and clubs that meet regularly to train, like the Santa Cruz Parkour Team. Vargas Academy in Scotts Valley now offers parkour classes for all ages, with videos on their site showing children ricocheting off foam-padded parkour bulkheads. Gone are the days when a search for “parkour” on YouTube only brought up grainy handheld-camera shots of urban decay and European teenagers.
Tempest Freerunning Academy, another parkour gym in Los Angeles, released a video of its Mario-themed practice area — complete with ball pit and brick-patterned foam blocks — set to a dubstep soundtrack, snagging almost 3 million views on YouTube from the time of publication.
In Santa Cruz, parkour has become much more organized than when Nims and Moe founded the team two years ago.
“I’ve actually started teaching a gym class in Santa Cruz,” Nims said. “I don’t want to be elitist, but I think the best way to learn is to be outside. Training solely in the gym, you get this sense of comfort, that you’re indestructible. Training in the gym and outside, you’ll see progress.”
Nims’ opinion of gym training is mixed.
“Out here, you can’t change anything. Out here, you need to adapt to the environment. In a gym, you’re creating your own challenges and moving stuff around,” he said. “It’s not a worse way to train, but it’s a different reality. If you want to use parkour usefully in a world where you can’t change the facts, you need to adapt to the reality of, ‘I can’t move that wall.’”
Despite the growth of organized parkour facilities, Nims said the future of parkour lies in a personalized blend of organized group training and solo experimentation.
“It’s all very individual,” he said. “People I teach can do moves that took a year to learn in just a lesson or two. I would suggest that people find a community that they can train with, but match that with their personal training. You want to learn your own style and what your body is capable of.”
Michelle Huffman of Santa Cruz Sports Central Gymnastics Learning Center said she looks forward to watching parkour grow as a sport, but people engaging in parkour aren’t necessarily competitive.
“I look at their practice the same way anyone would ‘practice’ the things they love to do,” Huffman said. “People ‘practice’ chess, poker, weight lifting, reading, riding bicycles, et cetera, for the pure enjoyment of the activity. Others train to compete.”
The Santa Cruz Sports Central Gymnastics Learning Center is where Nims currently teaches parkour, and is also where the UCSC gymnastics team trains. Huffman thinks training in a group environment is helpful for developing parkour skills.
“There is support and usually a grounding energy when engaging in an activity with a group as opposed to simply being ‘on your own,’” Huffman said. “As with any physical activity, there has to be a respect for the danger involved. Practice allows for the body and mind to develop that understanding of movement and its limits. When you practice with others — especially regularly — the collective reasoning power brings in new ideas for ‘old’ problems and can offer the ‘voice of reason’ if someone is not quite ready for a new skill.”
In the College Eight plaza, Moe tries to be that voice of reason, jokingly admonishing the gathered crowd for not warming up properly.
“I know no one likes to run, so we’ll do some non-running warm-ups,” Moe shouts from a crab-walking position. Laughter rises from the crowd. They had already been running and vaulting for close to 20 minutes, and Moe’s call to stretch comes off as a little after-the-fact.
As members of the collected parkour teams do jumping push-ups down the College Eight steps and ramps, an older parkour artist who introduced himself briefly as James coaches a younger boy in proper warm-up form. After a few minutes of this, the boy gets distracted and asks if he can look at James’ iPhone.
“We’re watching reality — it’s cooler,” James replies.
People passing by seem to agree.
“Everyone who sees you is jealous of you,” yells a bearded passerby.
The parkour team laughs, shrugs and nods — none of them seem inclined to disagree.